19.06.09 Bedos-Rezak and Rust, Faces of Charisma

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Glenn Peers

The Medieval Review 19.06.09

Bedos-Rezak, Brigitte Miriam, and Martha Dana Rust, eds. Faces of Charisma: Image, Text, Object in Byzantium and the Medieval West. Explorations in Medieval Culture, 9. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2018. pp. xiv, 422. ISBN: 978-9-004288-690 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Glenn Peers
Syracuse University

Enchantment soon took hold: within little more than a year of the publication of C. Stephen Jaeger's book Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West in February 2012, an impressive group of scholars convened at New York University's Medieval and Renaissance Center to consider it. According to the introductory essay to the volume under review, a consensus unfolded during the event that Jaeger's work on charisma merited not only discussion arising from standard-length conference presentations, but also extended, careful analysis in a print volume. Five years later, the essays are now published as an ensemble of vigorous writings, not without criticism of Enchantment, and make strong moves toward greater precision and specificity than the originary book attempted. Jaeger himself has an essay in the volume; his own writing is available here for comparison and judgment.

And for those not as familiar with Jaeger's remarkable body of writing, the introductory essay, and indeed each of the contributions, lay clear foundations for their arguments, which build, but do not entirely depend, on Jaeger's positions. One might in fact feel as if one has read a great deal of Jaeger by book's end, so careful are these scholars to acknowledge their intellectual debt. The introductory essay written by the editors is a tour de force of unpacking a scholar's ideas and of their determining force among the essays. But it also marks, at length, departures and refinements. It is not without longueur and repetition, however, and editorial restraint is not evident here or in the length and density of a number of the essays. Readers will more likely read sections lightly for direction and then for places to land within the volume. But many scholars of medieval culture in the west (and for Byzantinists, one very nice essay by Paroma Chatterjee), familiar with Jaeger or not, will find a great deal to stimulate, challenge and enrich thinking and writing.

By way of a brief (admittedly simplifying) summary of Jaeger's arguments, chapter four of Enchantment might serve. This focus does disservice on one level, but on the other, his writing is characterized by clarity and natural flow of argument, so this chapter can stand for the book's aims here. Jaeger's position is social, since charisma can only be gauged by human reception and reaction, and he also diverges from Max Weber's work on charismatic personalities in order to engage with a remarkably wide range of cultural forms—Jaeger is fluently learned. In this chapter, his principal focus is the perennial masterwork of Late Antiquity, the Pantocrator icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai (forgive a Byzantinist's bias, please). In articulating his theory of charisma or aura, Jaeger lays out his terms with easy clarity: "Neither relic nor icon is a 'pure form'; the concepts are porous; each can contain elements of the other." The Pantocrator icon is here a charismatic work from which God stares at a viewer, while being only mildly auratic; it is plastic, expressive, hypermimetic, but we cannot penetrate it, find depth in it, because of its two-dimensionality and hyperrealism. Dürer's self-portraits (1500, 1522) are the opposite. The Pantocrator icon is limited: "Everything that this painted subject is, is there. It is a single-occupancy icon." And it has no mystery or visual punctum, only sanctity. That reading has a lot to recommend it, especially as a way to try to come to terms with the uncanny synecdoche of the relic, and Jaeger's description of the icon is classic ekphrasis, along Wittgenstein's lines, "A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably" [his italics].

But in this description, the icon is weak in charisma, just the same, because it "casts an umbra of peace, forgiveness, love and understanding." But to paraphrase Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, what's so funny about those qualities? Jaeger is able to argue forcefully and elegantly for his position, which does order and explain such beautiful and mute objects. And his argument position is always for the discrete, verbal, human; it describes an icon with controlled and controlling prose (the landscape behind the Pantocrator is "certainly on earth, not in heaven"?) and he makes a lot of assumptions in his descriptions (e.g. "The eyes of the icon are large and soft."). It doesn't allow mystery to the icon because it operates here from photographic priority of the post-conservation, extra-context version of the object; the photograph shows a cleaned up, legible image, without the auratic buzz of cladding, variable lighting, and liturgical intensity. And in that inoculated version, no room is left for the bifurcated face of Christ, the human and divine halves so often remarked upon by observers. Despite large and soft eyes, the intense stare falls into Deleuze and Guattari's 'black hole,' the place of subjectivity, but it is without power or force for Jaeger because of the gentleness and compassion. In Emmanuel Levinas's ethical faciality, the face is the source of our intersubjectivity, and imitation is, moreover, a strong component of Jaeger's charisma. In short, Jaeger's analysis of icons' charisma is marked by a self-contradictory explanation of charisma and mildness. And yet that unstable field, which is the halved face of the Pantocrator in a kinetic glow of light, is both a welcoming by God incarnate to share that nature and a fearful, judging, real presence.

Jaeger's model is deeply human and humane, and those qualities also bring some limitations. IiHisniniopnpojnpomininipppt is mostly followed, though not without reflection and then qualified agreement, by nearly all the contributors, and even in the exceptions, there is a satisfying set of common positions. As the editors state, "Our volume seeks to counterbalance Jaeger's primary focus on reaction [charisma coming from a work's reception in his terms] by considering the performance of charismatic art via its artifactual modes" (20). This review will not engage all the essays for reasons of length and readers' patience, but perhaps two essays that show the range of possibilities might alert readers to the complexity and sophistication that compellingly marks ways forward signaled by essays in this volume.

For example, in his essay "Charisma and Material Culture," Paul Binsky takes a strongly materialist position in order to probe "whether...charisma has purchase in any exact criticism of material culture more generally, of things, natural things particularly, not people" (129). To pursue that probing, he takes along Alfred Gell (perhaps a too-easy scholar with whom to disagree, given the amount of critical energies directed at his posthumous work), as well as issues of bodily representation, and personality and material culture. His principal focus is the Lady Chapel at Ely ca. 1320, by which he argues that articulation of experience through technique and sensation was sought by most medieval artists. The represented human body was in this view "the fundamental domain of charismatic speculation" (135), by which images' emoting is a powerful means for insinuating and arriving at conviction in viewers (see also Jacqueline Jung's essay, which explores similar arguments). Charismatic effects depend on face, Binsky asserts, but not necessarily on the face one sees represented; without 'back story,' no represented face can carry charisma on its own terms, because it is contingent on significance outside itself for insinuation (for example, referring to the Sinai Pantocrator). No Peircean firstness here, thought and judgment are essential for images' operations in the medieval world. But he is willing to entertain the possibility of charisma inhering in images. Gaze is key. Yet images cannot gaze like we do, nor are they rational, embodied, self-conscious. In the first place, this is a special category of imposed equivalents: why does everything have to be like us in order to be accorded our special, human priority? As images traverse the spectrum of alive and not alive, so can we during our life cycles, too. In the second, disagreeing with Gell is not an unusual rhetorical move, but dismissing Jane Bennet perhaps is more complicated, since Vibrant Matter is an influential work for 'new materialism' and needs to be addressed, not consigned to a footnote as the only contrary source. If thing-charisma does allow weakening of the exclusive human hold on life, then we might be arriving at the generalizing weakness in these arguments around charisma as such. Binksy alerts us to the real fear, laudable on its own terms, "that we risk objectifying persons possessed of life and consciousness" (150). Objects or subjects, perhaps it matters only to live with the medieval possibility of the spread of charisma throughout divine creation.

Joseph Salvatore Ackley stands at another point along the spectrum of a charismatic mimesis that can entertain (if also reject) the possibility of living things in his essay "Precious-Metal Figural Sculpture, Medium, and Mimesis in the Late Middle Ages." Icons can have charisma in their abilities to project simultaneously human and divine qualities, but Jaeger had limited himself to the surface qualities. Because Ackley examines materials, he is able to probe the meanings and experiences produced by mimetic and hypermimetic demonstrations of figural reliquaries. Using the Pantocrator icon as example again, Ackley eschews models of presence for Jaeger's idealization of form, color and texture of the observable world (356). In those modes, "a tantalizing fleetness and beckoning inaccessibility" marks the longing of "the" ideal viewer (380-1). The staging of winged altarpieces stands in for the general mobilization of desire by donor and viewer, while materiality served to intensify those pervasive feelings of the medieval viewer.

Both of these essays are skillfully argued and masterfully supported. And yet a longing exists here, too, for a kind of humanistic scholarship that allows and controls access to enchantment, much like in the imagined worlds of those modern museumized cathedrals (and vice versa) that the Pantocrator still eludes.

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